The issues of skills and education aren't far from the minds of many of the games industry's business leaders in the UK, and the challenge of competition from other territories and their fiscal incentives regularly makes headlines.
One man who's seen the situation develop close-up is Matthew Jeffery, who recently joined Autodesk as head of Talent Acquisition for EMEA and Global Talent Brand - and held a similar post at EA for many years prior to that. Here he explains why industry should be more positive about the UK's assets, and why students need to research their paths into the business more carefully than ever before.
Q: Since we first discussed this issue three years ago, a lot's been said on the challenges of education and skills in the UK. What's been happening in that time?
Matthew Jeffrey: The interesting this is that in those three years we've seen changes both within the industry, and the quality of talent we're looking to hire. The changes within the industry, particularly targeted on the UK, are that the country has fallen a little bit behind in the development league tables - so we're currently in position four.
There's been a lot of discussion about tax breaks and incentives to work in the UK - but at the same time there's been a huge discussion about the Skills Review, what skills we have here, and the publication of the Livingstone Hope Review and the large number of pointers to the best way forward.
It's interesting though, when I look at things, I still reflect on the quality of the UK talent pool. If you look at the industry and where it's hiring from, I think the UK has a lot to sell in the world market - and sometimes that's underplayed; particularly in the current environment.
So if you were to take the perspective of an internal investor when they look at the UK, they're looking at the publicity and media buzz about slipping down the league tables and take a judgement on that. Then they look at all the chatter about skills, that we don't have the right skills for the games industry, and so on. But - the video games business is a great industry, so where are the growth areas?
Montreal is one of the big areas, which obviously has great tax breaks, but it's a very squeezed talent pool of experienced gaming staff. Already in Montreal they're looking to where they get new staff from, and having to attract people from the UK and cherry-pick them.
But what's often overlooked is the cost of relocating an individual, their family, getting them settled into a lifestyle - that's a tough thing for a company to do, and it's a large cost. So when we look at things we have to remember that yes, there are tax breaks, but then there are also lots of costs involved in relocation. So Montreal is pretty stretched and needs to bring in outside talent.
Toronto is a huge growth area as well and has a small, niche games background - it's got a very strong talent pool in film with strong universities, but again it's looking at hiring in individuals... and again, from the UK. You have to ask yourself sometimes that if the UK's talent pool isn't that strong - as has been made out - why are these companies cherry-picking consistently from the UK?
The last area is India, with more huge growth. But when you compare it to the UK, it's not really ready for full-scale console development with respect to the gaming sector. It's great in terms of animation, art and some of the QA and testing areas.
Therefore, when you look at the UK, we should be poised for growth - we have got a great talent pool and we need to champion more about what we're doing, and not lose sight of what we have already.
Q: A lot of the publicity tends to be negative because there are senior figures who would no doubt lament the better tax climate elsewhere - but talking about the UK, what specifically are those skills and qualities that the country has, that are so popular for other regions?
Matthew Jeffrey: Well, you only have to look at some of the great games that have been designed and produced in the UK over the past year - companies like Criterion, with the latest Need For Speed game, that's rightly seen as the best Need For Speed in the series. Obviously there's the Grand Theft Auto series, and a whole host of others.
There's great art being produced here, with great designers working on these games, that the world wants to attract - there's no doubt. Hence your various companies in Toronto and Montreal are going to pinpoint the UK - and because it's quite unsettled in terms of some of the publicity, they'll be able to attract those individuals across.
So we need to remind ourselves that we do have strong universities in the UK; we have great experienced talent; but also our companies need to be more focused on how we attract, retain and keep that best talent - particularly here in the UK.
Q: Obviously there are trade associations in the UK that are lobbying the government to create more of an even playing field for development, and part of that lobbying must inevitably be about getting across the message that action must be taken. But the flipside of that is a bit of a negative perception of the business environment.
Matthew Jeffrey: We just need to focus on the positives, particularly in the skills arena - what we have to offer moving forwards. There are challenges there; but there are challenges in every market - I've mentioned those in Montreal and Toronto, in terms of getting talent in.
When you look at what we need to be doing - and what's key for us at Autodesk - is what's happening with the graduates. When a graduate looks at the degree they're going to study, that's a critical choice. Does that stand them in the best position to get a job after they finish that degree? That's a big area.
Q: People will look at the UK's business landscape with respect to development, and there are a number of excellent studios located here - but there's basically no large-scale investment being made in UK PLC in the way that there has been into areas in Canada.
Matthew Jeffrey: What we have seen is the re-emergence of the bedroom programmers, the small development outfits and the creative talent there. Again, many of the people we could look at in the UK are leading in terms of their creativity, and what they're able to produce.
That might be on social network gaming, mobile devices and so on - in many ways that's a key way forward for the industry, and it's great that since we last spoke, whereas before people really had set choices about how they'd come into the industry around working on a big, triple-A project, now they can set up their own company and really get into social games. And when those social games take fire, millions of people can be playing them.
So there are a lot of possibilities for creative talent out there in the market place; it just takes that energy and dynamism to go out there. The big players do support and publish this material as well, if that's the route that the small companies want to go down.
Q: You could look at something like Hello Games with Joe Danger, I guess. It's interesting to hear David Cameron issuing a call for entrepreneurs to basically save the country's economy; a key industry for that would be the video games business?
Matthew Jeffrey: I'd completely agree with that. It's about creativity - content is king, and some of the stuff we're seeing, be it through mobile, Xbox Live, social media or Facebook gaming - it's cutting edge. It's entertaining millions and that's what you want to see. Some of those creatives out there studying courses, that's the beacon for them - they can look at full-scale triple-A production, or social, small-scale development.
Q: The latest Budget statement noted increases to R&D Tax Credits; in some ways that's probably of more use to the smaller companies than the big ones?
Matthew Jeffrey: That seems to be the feedback that's coming through. It's difficult for any government, with the pressure about tax breaks - and no doubt, that if tax breaks were forthcoming then other countries would react and change their fiscal position... and where do you stop?
It's difficult for any government to be able to focus on any one industry, and with that Budget it was trying to target a number of industries; the creative industries - and particularly gaming - can really leap forward. We've seen the film industry flourish, and hopefully we can see the games industry do the same, with smaller developers leading the way.
Q: I guess a lot of people would point to the film tax credits and say that parity there for the games industry would be desirable. But again, if as the government you're faced with up making multiple tens of billions of pounds in cuts, the decision isn't about giving another industry tax credits, it's probably about whether to take away the ones already in place...
Matthew Jeffrey: It's not an easy decision, but the good thing is that with the likes of TIGA and UKIE both promoting the industry to the government, they're both making steps forward. We saw that with PEGI, with messaging - the government is listening, there's more access there, and people like Ed Vaizey and George Osborne are taking personal interest. All of that leads to a stronger position for the industry.
Q: It's probably fair to say, then, that if there is a talent drain to places such as Montreal and Toronto, the best form of counter-measure would be a compelling talent conveyor belt at graduate level. Changes in the education system do take time to occur, but how do you view that sector with respect to an entry point into video games right now?
Matthew Jeffrey: It's interesting - if you look at the whole talent pool, particularly graduates, there's still a lot to be positive about in terms of the skills. The real challenge we face is that we have to - as an industry - step back into a graduate's shoes. When they're taking that decision about A-levels or other higher education and thinking about what they want to do, what industry they want to work in, if they choose games it's a case of looking at which degree they study for.
With some of the government proposals we know that some courses could cost up to £9000 per year, and naturally a number of universities will charge that - which in turn makes it more difficult for others not to charge that, because of the status question.
So a graduate will be looking at £27,000, plus costs on top of that. When we talked in 2008 a graduate could emerge from university with around £25,000 of debt; we could now be looking at £40-50,000 of debt that they have to repay.
That makes it more important for them, when they look at a course, to make sure it will be the best opportunity for them to get a job and progress in the career they want. As industry, we need to step back and think about which the best courses are and which ones can be recommended. If students are going to come out with that level of debt, we need to be able to advise them what to do next.
Students at the moment don't have the best visibility into this - they can go to their careers advisers and ask them what the best course is to get into games; the good thing it that we obviously have Skillset, but there are ten courses accredited and over 140 courses out there.
As part of Skillset we recognise we need to accredit more, but not lose the quality in doing that. But are we saying that the other 130 courses aren't worthwhile? A number of them are; but a number of them you wouldn't recommend sending your children to. It's pretty tough.
Q: Skillset is an important barometer of quality, but is dependent on courses applying for accreditation. The vast majority of courses haven't applied - but there's no way to tell if that's because of quality concerns, or other issues. It begs the question of whether prospective undergraduates are getting solid information about where the quality is, and anecdotally, I'm not sure that's the case.
Matthew Jeffrey: I'd agree with you - but we also have to look at the remit of Skillset, which is focused on gaming qualifications and degrees. But when you look at it, the industry hires from a wider population than that. At the moment, I'd say from experience, that the best computer science students could be coming from Manchester or Imperial - that have high quality and brilliant value for the games industry - but they're not within the Skillset accreditation at this stage.
If you look at art, if you look outside of the UK - particularly at the likes of Gobelins and Supinfocom in Paris or Film Academy in Germany, which are three of the best art and animation schools in the world - it is sometimes bizarre to go to those schools and see the likes of Pixar, Dreamworks and Sony all trying to recruit them. It's often people not from the UK going across to recruit them.
Again, I would question some of the recruitment tactics of some of the companies in the UK, when you've got some of the best film and animation students within Europe close by. There's no visa situation to complain about within the European Union, but there is great talent.
So, when we look at the whole Skills Review, let's include Europe, let's include those people studying computer science and maths and physics - because they're all coming into the games industry, while we're focused on the headline figures from the 140 games courses.
Q: So if there was to be a resource for this information, where should it sit? League tables for other subjects exist, but not really for games.
Matthew Jeffrey: It's really up to both industry and individuals to own it. We can look to government to help, but there's an amount on the government's shoulders already. As companies we need to participate and help where we can with the Livingstone Hope Review, alongside Skillset to drive harder and faster the number of courses accredited - and to be open on our own websites about careers advice.
But it's also up to the individual to really research into the career paths they want to follow. Specifically, if they're going to study somewhere - and ultimately invest £40-50,000 into that - then they need to be looking at which industry companies are recruiting from which courses. Have those people been promoted within those companies, or drifted off? How close are the universities with industry?
It doesn't matter which companies - it might be the big players or the smaller ones, but it's important to get a feel for which universities are close to them. An individual owns their career, and that's another message that needs to go out there.
But it's quite a concern - from the Livingstone Hope Review, 1585 graduates from 141 specialist courses in 2009, only 12 per cent secured a job within six months of leaving college. Where have the rest of those people gone? It's a waste of talent. Are they going off into other industries, or having to survive and work part-time in Tesco? The Skillset courses multiply that number by three, and there's a better success rate, but there's still 70-odd per cent who studied on the accredited courses going off and doing other things.
Q: Those statistics do beg two questions. Firstly, I wonder how many of those not getting into games are moving into related industries, and doing okay from that. And secondly, because those numbers are so low, is there an issue around whether lots of those people studying games courses simply aren't suitable for games jobs; and therefore they're not being advised properly as to aptitudes in the first place. It's an aspirational place to work, but the jobs do need specific skills, and aren't suitable for everyone.
Matthew Jeffrey: There are a number of things at play here - you have to look at universities, that are quite naturally looking at funding, and competing to attract the best students. So they're offering a plurality of courses in different things - and some of those courses aren't that strong, and not giving the individual a good grounding as a foundation for a career.
So the universities have a part to play - but we have to recognise they're competing for funding, and the more bums on seats they get, the more funding they get. And the more secure their future, and the better able they are to attract students in the future.
There's a big marketing dynamic for those universities to put out sexy courses, which as we know aren't always the best thing for the students. We have to be educational - it's not about publishing league tables of the worst universities or the worst courses, it's about giving that information and empowering students to think about where the big companies hire from. They don't have that data at the moment.
Q: You mentioned the Livingstone Hope Review - how satisfied were you with the recommendations made?
Matthew Jeffrey: There are a lot of good recommendations made there - the key thing is delivering them. As an industry we must unite on that. It's not a document that should get all dusty, and that is regarded as 'great in theory' - we need to power forward, and all of us play a part in doing that.
There's a good focus in terms of computer science elements, and maths and physics, but gaming also includes those that will be studying English language and literature, business studies, project management, and other great people - because there are careers for producers, development managers, game designers and artists.
We mustn't forget about those disciplines as well - but great recommendations, we've just got to get behind it and help power it through.
Q: And finally, some people would recommend specialising with respect to courses - do you agree with that, or are generalisations also valid?
Matthew Jeffrey: That's an interesting one. The key advice I'd give there is that, whether you specialise or generalise, it's all dependent on the course you're studying. There are universities that offer great general courses out there and others that offer specialist ones; just don't get caught up in the trap of being seduced by media or university literature.
Do your research, make sure the university is well-supported and has good relationships with industry - and that industry is employing people from that university who move forward. In big console development, you can get into those niche areas. But we also know it's not all about that now in the games industry. The generalists who can do a bit of everything - with the social and Facebook games - can equally have a massive part to play.
It depends on where you want to be with your career - part of one of the console or PC super-teams, or with more direct influence and control over the way that the product is going, and be part of one of those mobile or social games. Just take ownership of that choice, and celebrate that this is a great place to be - the UK. You can have a great career, and the potential is huge - we mustn't lose sight of that.
Matthew Jeffrey is head of EMEA Talent Acquisition and Global Talent Brand at Autodesk. Interview by Phil Elliott.